Amidst a May heat wave that had the entire population of Quebec practically melting, Crees, members of the Abitibi-Témiscamingue business community and a series of experts in everything from wind power to mining to environmental protection converged for a two-day meeting of minds.

With energy and natural resource development being a constant buzz in Eeyou Istchee, the idea behind the Conference on Energy and Environment – put on by the Secretariat to the Cree Nation: Abitibi-Témiscamingue Economic Alliance and CREECO – was to bring all of the involved parties and many experts together.

Over 210 individuals congregated at the Hôtel des Eskers for the event, including Grand Chiefs (past and present), Chiefs from many communities, members of CREECO and various Entities, Quebec political figures and high-level speakers there to educate and inform the masses.

Throughout the event, three major workshops were presented concerning energy development, wind and solar energy, and mining and sustainable development. At these events, not only did field experts present their findings, local Cree Chiefs as well as Cree Entities had the opportunity to present the issues they are facing, both positive and negative, and then discuss them in a workshop format.

During the event, CREECO also announced its new partnership with Marcel Baril Ltée, a construction supply company, to formally create a new entity, Eeyou Distribution.

According to Jonathan Saganash, a communications agent for CREECO, the event went off without a hitch. Not only was the two-day conference an excellent opportunity for many of the industry players to meet, discuss and learn from each other as well enjoy themselves. After the Wednesday evening banquet, the Chisasibi Rockers rocked down the house to the merriment of many.

The Nation had the opportunity to speak with several of the presenters who organizers had on hand to explore the meaning and messages behind their presentations. Here is what they had to say:

David Cliche, the Director of Wind Energy for SM Group International and former Quebec Minister of Environment, made a presentation on the unique potential for energy development in Eeyou Istchee and also moderated a workshop on wind and solar energy.

He said his presentation was geared at what the impacts of hydroelectric developments had been in the north, what the impacts of wind-energy development are like and ideology on future energy development in the north. Having been involved in land planning in the north since 1978 and his lengthy experience with the Quebec government, Cliche came to the event with a tremendous amount of perspective.

While Cliche did an overview of the dramatic changes in the territory since Hydro-Québec began development in the north in the 1970s, looking at the 10,000 square km of Cree land that went from being untouched traditional lands to Hydro’s new reservoirs, he also highlighted the positives of development.

“Without the James Bay hydroelectric development, there would be no James Bay Agreement, there would be no Paix des Braves, there would be no road infrastructure. With one look at what the Crees have now as far as housing and infrastructure is concerned and looking back at the way it was in 1978, there is no comparing the two. The improvement is a great thing and it is tremendous,” said Cliche

Cliche acknowledged the huge strain that this development had has on the Cree people in moving from a traditional way of life just 30 years ago to becoming an economic power in the north with all of the trappings of modern life. At the same time, he also highlighted its many merits which included the development of the Cree Entities as economic tools.

Cliche also spoke about the impacts these projects have had on the environment which is why he made the suggestion that if the Crees are looking to develop their territory any further, wind power should be a major consideration.

In particular, Cliche highlighted the idea of a pilot project coupling diesel and wind power in Whapmagoostui as he had conducted a pre-feasibility study on this in 2005.

“This would work by putting up a wind mill for when the wind blows it can reduce the use of oil in a generator. When the wind is constant and you foresee a lot of wind along Hudson Bay and James Bay for two to four days at a time, you can shut down your diesel generator. You can’t get rid of the diesel generators because they always need it as a back up but on windy days you can reduce the use of oil,” said Cliche.

Because new Entities like Eeyou Power, the newly formed Cree energy company, have an interest in renewable resource development in the future on the territory as do others in the north, Cliche said he spoke about maximizing the potential economic benefits there.

Since the Cree are heavily involved with energy development and Abitibi-Témiscamingue sees a great deal of mineral extraction activity, Cliche suggested that these forces could be combined in future industrial development as some of these minerals are being linked to the new electronic technology that Quebec and Hydro-Québec want to develop.

“Basically, the trend here is that the notion of partnership between Abitibi-Témiscamingue and the Cree Nation is getting stronger and stronger,” said Cliche.

Just before Cliche’s presentation, Steven Guilbeault, a cofounder and member of Quebec-based environmental group, Équiterre, did his own talk entitled “All About Energy”, which highlighted the pros and cons of energy production as well as his ideas on conservation.

“I was presenting the fact that we have two crises facing us: one being environmental in nature, the crisis of global warming and climate change and the other being the energy crisis. The fact that the energy world, as we know it and a large part of what we take for granted, is about to change substantially,” said Guilbeault.

Examining the costs of oil over the past 30 years, Guilbeaut said oil maintained a price of $20 a barrel from the Second World War until the 1970s and then spiraled upward particularly with the two US-led invasions of Iraq. While the price has climbed and fallen significantly over the last two decades, it is currently around $80 a barrel and the global economy is still in the midst of a recession.

The question then became, what is going to happen when Americans, Canadians, Europeans and the Japanese start consuming oil again. Naturally, the price will go back up and most likely surpass prices that the world has never seen before and this will also change the economy.

“My message is that the solutions to these two crises are basically the same. It is about efficiency, it is about renewable energy, clean technologies, thinking outside of the box, using our creativity and our intelligence to learn to do things differently, to change certain things that we do. I challenge the view that North Americans will have to sacrifice their way-of-life so that we can leave our children and our grandchildren with a healthy planet,” said Guilbeault.

He gave the example of Scandinavian people living in countries similar to Canada with harsh climates and long winters, and with similar economies and social programs. However they pollute 3-4 times less than North Americans. The question then becomes, are they actually 3-4 times less happy because of it?

Guilbeault said he also discussed the deluge of new technology and emerging technology that is or will soon become readily available on the market through the ingenuity of nations that are focused on energy conservation, such as China. While he admitted there are many local and municipal efforts devoted to developing green energy or conserving on what exists, Canada politically is focused on developing the oil sands instead of new technology.

His underlying message was that unless we start looking at ways to adapt to how much the price of oil is going to rise, and begin to employ measures, such as using smarter technologies that are both energy efficient and less harmful for the environment, we will end up paying for it.

Wemindji Chief Rodney Mark made his own presentation on the challenges of producing and distributing energy within his community.

In 1981, Wemindji embarked on its own small-scale energy production project with a mini-dam located 1.3 km upstream from the community and had the project working by 1985.

Mark said ideally the project could generate 1.1 megawatts annually, but it only has generated about 600 kilowatts per year and that’s when it is functioning. In recent years the mini-dam project has been underperforming due to difficulties and costs.

“The moral of my presentation was that we had to look at local capacity and management style of operating an energy project. These were the two fundamentals that we need to look at before saying that we were going to build this or that.

“Obviously it was to identify the importance of training individuals to work with the mini-dam and other aspects of energy production because we want to diversify the energy source, looking at the mini-dam, at wind power, biomass and all of those other things but also have a few technicians running these different projects,” said Mark.

In the past the min-dam has generated $230,000 a year for the community, but because it has not been functioning properly, the community has incurred debt over it.

While Mark said Wemindji is not looking to join in with the other Cree communities that have invested with Eeyou Power to develop major wind-energy projects in Eeyou Istchee, he and his community are looking into pre-feasibility studies to see what can be developed to the benefit of his community.

Former Grand Chief Matthew Mukash presented his perspectives and experiences in politics in terms of energy and environment during the conference.

Ironically, during this presentation, Amos experienced a blackout, leaving the only light in the conference room beaming down on Mukash through a skylight.

Someone was overheard making the comment, “This never would have happened had you let the Great Whale project go through.” It was, of course, funny as Mukash had spent years fighting the Hydro-Québec development in his hometown of Whapmagoostui.

Mukash gave a lengthy speech tracing not only the Cree’s history with Hydro-Québec and their developments in the north, but also tracing the history of the Crees and the environment while reminiscing about the traditional ways of the ancestors. He spoke passionately about the Cree people and their traditions on the land and their ability to sustain this traditional life now in light of the industrial impact on the territory.

He then laid out a series of the more major environmental impacts from this development that could be documented and many more that will be documented in the future. The immediate effects included the impact of the flooded territory on fish and wildlife, the dramatic mercury contamination and greenhouse gas emissions as a result of flooding carbon-rich peat lands, muskeg and forest soils and the huge use of fossil fuels in developing these projects.

At the same time, Mukash cautioned his listeners that while these impacts have been documented, there are other impacts that have yet to have been explored or documented and these could prove problematic in the future.

In terms of future development, Mukash stressed the importance of the Cree’s relationship with Hydro-Québec and how successful development of renewable energy resources will be contingent on it.

While he stressed the importance of working together as a nation with industry and the province, it was not without coming to the realization that what is done in terms of energy development in the north and the environment will also have an impact on the rest of the world.

“It is time to rethink how we do things to promote our survival. We need to find the means to improve technology, to find alternatives that will increase efficiency and create sustainable economies. We must exhaust all possible alternatives to energy resource development that is harmful to the environment, including hydroelectric development,” said Mukash.

While other perspectives were presented at the Conference on Energy and Environment, just about every individual the Nation spoke with seemed to remember most what Grand Chief Coon Come had said during his lunchtime address at the conference.

Coon Come spoke about economic partnerships between the Crees, their business partners in Abitibi-Témiscamingue and those in neighbouring communities. In terms of business development and moving forward for the benefit of the Cree Nation, he reminded the audience that “they need us just as much as we need them.”

While no doubt the events of this conference will continue to resonate in the minds of the attendees and those they are affiliated with, what is certain is that energy and environment will always play a major issue in Eeyou Istchee.